Imagine a cross between a TED conference and the New Zealand Foo Camp, where every couple of weeks you are summoned to give yet another ‘speech of your life’. You’ll also be expected to have an opinion on every nuance of the politics of the day and be able to either write about, publish or sponsor the ‘next big thing’.
Then imagine if you’re a struggling author, this all takes place within half an hour’s walk of your lodgings in the Strand in London, and—better still—if you get the summons, you are fed while you talk. As for company, you would rub shoulders with the likes of the legendary dramatist William Congreve, and the writers and publishers Joseph Addison and Richard Steel.
Enter the truly loud and wonderful world of the Kit Kat Club, a select gang of writers, publishers and patrons who, from its founding in 1690 for the next 20 years, gathered regularly at the pie shop of the baker Christopher (Kit) Cat, shared a brilliant dinner and the chance to take part in one of the great moments in London life when literature as a profession finally took off as something that you could earn a living at.
There was—of course—a catch. The publishing deals were almost always with the same guy, Jacob Tonson: a cross between Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch. Also, the topics under discussion where almost always about making the dominant political elite—the Whigs—appear acceptable, witty and erudite. In short, talent came with politics, and politics always had a master.
Ophelia Fields’ account of how this club came to dominate the intellectual and political enquiry of the early 18th-century coffee house society of London is compelling. It’s also a brilliant read.
That said, it’s clear that if your politics or your face didn’t fit, there was little to commend the Kit Kat pie, or its patrons. And of the latter, I was more than once reminded of the classic response of Samuel Johnson to Lord Chesterfield, who supplied a very late endorsement of Johnson’s Dictionary project. Asked Johnson: “Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water—and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?”